2020 Offensive Rookie of the Year Candidates
With a fresh batch of rookies ready to make their debut in the NFL, it’s worth asking who could be contenders for the Offensive Rookie of the Year (OROY) and Defensive Rookie of the Year (DROY) in 2020. What does recent history suggest is likely to happen for the new players on Offense?
Since 2000, Running Backs and Quarterbacks have dominated the award with nine and eight players winning at each position respectively, while just three Wide Receivers have won the OROY. Prior to 2000, only one QB was selected in the award’s history, and six WRs, with RBs winning all other times. No Offensive Linemen or Tight Ends have ever won the award.
Much like the DROY award, almost all the recipients of the OROY went in Rounds 1-2 of their respective drafts, with the exceptions of Mike Anderson (2000 6th rd), Dak Prescott (2016 4th rd), and Alvin Kamara (2017 3rd rd). Despite the talent players taken so highly in the Draft are expected to possess, many recipients of the OROY can be considered to have gone on to be “busts”. With the careers of the 2015-2019 winners still developing, these will not be considered “busts” at this time. However, Todd Gurley (2015 OROY) had a successful start to his career, but in 2019 declined in his production due to injury, and was traded away in the offseason, suggesting his best years may be behind him.
Of the 15 players who won the OROY between 2000 and 2014, seven would now be considered busts. Three of them (Anthony Thomas, Cadillac Williams and Eddie Lacy) played four years or less with the team that drafted them, but then failed to land on a second team long term and never reproduced at the same level as their rookie season.
Three QBs (Vince Young, Sam Bradford, Robert Griffin III) struggled to maintain a starter role or were injured frequently, resulting in teams moving on from them – Bradford managed a year for both the Eagles and Vikings but nothing more, while RGIII is currently the Baltimore Ravens’ backup after injuries kept off the field for an extended time.
The seventh is WR Percy Harvin who is currently seeking a return to the league, having essentially only played 5 seasons, none of which have seen him have 1000 receiving yards. Instead, he has mostly been a Kick Returner or gadget player, although he did win a Super Bowl with Seattle.
Of the three positions that are most likely to win the OROY, WR is the least likely. The three recipients (Anquan Boldin, Percy Harvin and Odell Beckham Jr) each made the Pro Bowl as a rookie (Beckham Jr was an alternative), and had a narrative around their first season.
Boldin (2003) set the record for most receiving yards in a player’s first ever game with 217 yards, and this set the tone for the rest of his season as he finished with a stat line of 101/1377/8. Beckham Jr (2014) had similar numbers to Boldin with 91/1305/12, but garnered attention with his three-fingered one-handed grab against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday Night Football, as well as breaking Randy Moss’ record for consecutive 90+ yard games by a rookie.
Harvin’s receiving numbers weren’t quite as high (60/790/6), but he did return 2 kicks for TDs and had 1156 Kick Return yards (averaging 27.5yds), making him a notable playmaker as a rookie, even if it wasn’t strictly speaking on Offense. Moreover, Harvin was also the beneficiary of no other rookie posting dominant numbers and/or having a supporting narrative.
QBs as recipients of the award is a more recent phenomenon, but is slightly-less narrative driven. While they generally need to start as close to 16 games as possible, and almost always have a winning record, sometimes it is merely a matter of setting a record or being too dominant to overlook. Each QB that has won the award did so due to a feat unique to them, but there are a few common factors that provide a baseline.
Essentially, if a QB has a high rating or throws over 3500 yards without too many interceptions, that can be enough to win the award (Roethlisberger had a rating of 98.1, Prescott had 104.9, Bradford had 3512 yards).
The other four QBs were also dominant running with the football, and accounted for so many yards and TDs they were hard to ignore. Vince Young set the record for rookie QB rushing yards in a season, RGIII had 815 rushing yards, while Murray had 544 rushing yards to go with his 3722 passing yards and 20 passing TDs. Newton’s season stands above all other QBs though, as he compiled 4051 passing yards with 706 rushing yards, had a QBR of 84.5, and threw for 21 TDs while rushing for an additional 14 TDs.
Running backs, meanwhile, are the most consistent of the three positions in terms of their achievements as rookies. The benchmark of rushing yards is around 1200- only one of the nine RB OROY recipients failed to reach 1100 rushing yards, Alvin Kamara, who had 1554 scrimmage yards and 13 TDs.
1500+ scrimmage yards is another benchmark, and four of the RB winners failed to hit that mark.
- Anthony Thomas (2001) had just 1361 total yards and seven TDs, but played on a winning team (Bears went 13-3). That same year, Ladainian Tomlinson had 1603 scrimmage yards and 10 TDs but was on a Chargers team that went 5-11. Over 14 games.
- Cadillac Williams (2005) had 1259 total yards with 6 TDs on an 11-5 Buccaneers team, while there was also no other rookie with better production.
- Eddie Lacy (2013) posted 1435 scrimmage yards and 11 TDs with a Packers team that won their division.
- Todd Gurley (2015) posted 1294 scrimmage yards and 10 TDs and went 7-9 with the Rams. His main competition was QB Marcus Mariota, who had a QBR of 91.5 and threw for 19 TDs, but also threw for just 2818 yards over 12 games as starter with the Titans finishing 3-13.
Crucially, if a RBs numbers aren’t overly strong, being on a team with a winning record makes a difference and can help them win OROY. Moreover, a lack of competition can also make a RB the best option, even if they don’t have as dominant a season as previous winners.
While a narrative is less important for RBs than QB or WR, one can still be created based on a rookie RBs performances, such as Mike Anderson’s (2000) 15 TDs and 3 games of 175+ yards, Clinton Portis’ (2002) 17TDs and 1800+ scrimmage yards, or Saquon Barkley’s (2018) 2000+ scrimmage yards and setting a record for receptions in a single game (14rec).
So what does all of this tell us?
Narrative matters, especially for a QB and WR, while being on a team with a winning record also boosts the chances for a player to win the OROY.
RBs need around 1500+ scrimmage yards to meet the benchmark set, while WRs are almost reliant on a narrative and early attention in the season, along with strong numbers (1200+ yards). QBs need a strong passer rating (90+ minimum), a good TD:INT ratio, and/or high passing yards (3500+), while running QBs have a higher chance to win the award due to their additional playmaking opportunities (300+ rushing yards needed).
Although in multiple years there hasn’t been much competition for the award, if several rookies perform well in 2020, the following have the best chances of winning the OROY this season.
These players have the best chances at winning OROY in 2020:
12. CeeDee Lamb (WR, Cowboys)
Not only will it be hard for Lamb to win the award as a WR, but he also enters a crowded WR corps in Dallas. Lamb’s speed will suit the downfield attack the Cowboys use, which saw them finish third in total passing yards (4902) and yards per completion (8.2) in 2019.
Lamb should at least win the starting job as the slot receiver, replacing Randall Cobb who had 828 yards last year. If Lamb can develop chemistry with Dak Prescott, he will need to carve out a similar chunk as a minimum to have a chance at the OROY. But if Lamb remains the understudy to both Amari Cooper and Michael Gallup in 2020, it’s unlikely he gets 1200 yards, or has the supporting narrative a WR needs. A big few early 100+ yard games would also go a long way for Lamb’s chances.
11. Brandon Aiyuk (WR, 49ers)
Much like RB D’Andre Swift playing in a pass-heavy attack, Aiyuk enters one of the strongest rushing attacks in the league. In 2019, just one 49er saw over 100 targets and had 1000+ yards (George Kittle), and after WR Deebo Samuel’s 802 and Emmanuel Sanders’ 502 receiving yards (Sanders played in just 10 games for the 49ers), the majority of the remaining receiving yards were by RBs (including FB Kyle Juszczyk).
With Sanders gone and Samuel still establishing himself as well as having his status unknown entering Week 1, Aiyuk has an opportunity to immediately become a feature part of the offense. His speed and YAC skills suit the 49ers scheme, but the question is how many targets and opportunities Aiyuk will get. Another dominant 49ers season, with Aiyuk becoming the WR force the team lacked in 2019, will at least give him the narrative a WR needs, but chances aren’t favourable for him.
10. Denzel Mims (WR, Jets)
With the Jets’ WR room from 2019 being vacated as Robby Anderson left as a FA and Quincy Enunwa was released, Mims has little competition to become the top aerial threat for the team. While there are concerns around the Jets’ OL and Sam Darnold may not be protected while he is still developing,
Mims has the skillset of a WR1. His size, YAC, hands and ability to box out CBs should see Darnold throw his way often. Mims also was the workhorse at Baylor in 2019, as he had close to 24% of the team’s receptions, 29% of the receiving yards, and 50% of the receiving TDs, all of which led the team. In what may be a more evenly contested division for the first time in years, if Darnold can take the next step and the young pair become a dynamic and threatening combination, Mims will also have a strong narrative to prop him up as a chance at the OROY.
9. D'Andrew Swift (RB, Lions)
If he didn’t play RB, which has a better chance than any other position to win the OROY, Swift would have a hard time making this list. With RBs historically needing 1500 scrimmage yards to win the award, Swift will most likely need to add plenty of receiving yards.
The Lions had just 1609 rushing yards in 2019, although their starting RB was injured for half the season, as was Matthew Stafford. With the Lions on track for close to 5000 passing yards last year, Swift has a chance at adding some air yards to his rushing yards, but unless their ground game improves, it’s unlikely to give him the necessary numbers.
Instead, Swift will need to carve out a large portion of snaps, and make the most of them. The Lions figure to be pass-heavy once again due to Stafford’s passing abilities, while the OL also hasn’t been retooled to improve their run blocking. Swift will need to make defenders miss and add yards after contact, but his situation isn’t overly friendly to his chances at the OROY award.
8. J.K. Dobbins (RB, Ravens)
Entering a crowded backfield, Dobbins at least lands in a scheme that favours him greatly. The Ravens led the league in rushing yards and attempts in 2019, and Dobbins will provide fresh legs to reduce the workload on Mark Ingram and Gus Edwards. Not only that, but Dobbins played a large percentage of his snaps in the same pistol formation used by the Ravens, making him an ideal scheme fit.
Even if the Ravens regress a little in 2020 to dip back under 3000 rushing yards, if Dobbins has close to 1/3 of those rushing yards, it gives him a good foundation of close to 1000 rushing yards. However, what Dobbins will need to add is some extra yards as a receiver, something the Ravens didn’t use a lot in 2019.
Ingram led Ravens’ RBs with 247 receiving yards, and it’s questionable how many extra chances Dobbins will have as a receiver. The Ravens could choose to use Ingram and Dobbins in a similar fashion to how Ingram and Kamara were used by the Saints, which saw Kamara win the OROY. But with such a crowded situation, Dobbins will struggle to get enough snaps to get the yards needed for an OROY performance.
7. Justin Herbert (QB, Chargers)
Although it may be a clearer path for QBs to win the OROY these days, it appears as though Herbert won’t be starting for the Chargers at the beginning of the season. Unless he can win the starter’s job early, Herbert has the odds stacked against him to compete for the OROY.
There are sufficient weapons for him to target on the team, and with his ability to add yards on the ground, Herbert has a situation where he could post solid numbers and be an effective starter. With a strong Defence as well, Herbert could have the win record that matters, but it’s all moot if he isn’t named the starter.
6. Henry Ruggs (WR, Raiders)
With the 12th most passing yards in the league in 2019, the Raiders didn’t pass downfield much, as they were a league average 11.2 yards per reception. Additionally, their top WRs had just over 600 receiving yards each (neither played all 16 games), leaving the Raiders desperate for a reliable deep threat.
Ruggs can be the primary receiver for Las Vegas, but also needs QB Derek Carr to throw downfield more. The Raiders figure to lean on RB Josh Jacobs again in 2020, and if it takes time for Ruggs to build up Carr’s trust, he will be a slow starter and fall short of a 1000 yard season. Alternatively, if Ruggs becomes a big play threat early on, he could lead the OROY race, especially if other rookies aren’t emerging in Year 1.
5. Tua Tagovailoa (QB, Dolphins)
Much like Justin Herbert, Tagovailoa’s chances at the OROY are reduced unless he wins the starting job. While there is a higher chance he replaces Ryan Fitzpatrick faster than Herbert replaces Tyrod Taylor, it depends how long it takes him to do so. Anything more than four games is probably too long and he’ll be out of the running for OROY. However, a healthy Tagovailoa has as much playmaking ability as anyone in this rookie class, and this could be what separates him from his peers.
Much like last year’s OROY winner, Kyler Murray, Tagovailoa is a highly athletic QB who can be an asset as a runner and as a passer. He also has underrated weapons around him to take the pressure off him, but there are questions around his OL, which could pose problems. However, playing a position that garners plenty of attention, and with a diverse skillset at his disposal, Tagovailoa just needs to get on the field to compete for the OROY.
4. Clyde Edwards-Helaire (RB, Chiefs)
Despite the comparisons to Brian Westbrook, Edwards-Helaire will want a far better rookie season, especially if he is going to be an OROY contender. He is also a more well-rounded player than Westbrook, with a slightly more physical running style and as a more refined receiver, so he has plenty of potential to excel in 2020.
However, there are plenty of mouths to feed in Kansas City already, and Edwards-Helaire will be relying on a large amount of rushing yards more than receiving yards, as the Chiefs’ top two RBs had just under 400 receiving yards combined in 2019. He will also need to improve upon their rushing yards, as their RBs combined barely passed 1100 yards in the 10th worst rushing attack in the league in terms of total yards.
While this would give him 1500 total yards with these two totals, it’s a big ask for a rookie in a pass-heavy offense that likes to score quickly, and even if he manages it, still could be less impressive than a few other rookies.
3. Jerry Jeudy (WR, Broncos)
With plenty of optimism surrounding Denver and its young group of players on offense, Jeudy should make an instant impact with his complementary skillset. The Broncos are desperate for a possession receiver to pair with Courtland Sutton, and Jeudy suits that role perfectly. Sutton was the team’s leading receiver in 2019 with 1112 yards, and next best was TE Noah Fant’s 562 yards, leaving plenty of opportunity for Jeudy to get close to 1000 yards.
Without much competition for him on the roster, and a Denver offense that is potentially about to take a big step forward, it’s not a big stretch of the imagination for Jeudy to be a leading weapon on an emerging team, giving him the narrative and production needed.
2. Jonathan Taylor (RB, Colts)
With one of the league’s best Offensive Lines blocking for him, Taylor has a good chance to stack up numbers at a position that often wins the OROY. Taylor averaged over 2000 yards per season in his three years at Wisconsin, while also having an average of 6.7 yards per carry.
The Colts leading rusher in 2019, Marlon Mack, had just 1091 yards at 4.4 yards per attempt. The Colts had a healthy stable of RBs though, as they finished seventh overall in the league in rushing yards, although it was partly helped by QB Jacoby Brissett’s ability to scramble, which the team won’t see from their new starter Philip Rivers.
With an ageing Rivers possibly forcing the team to lean on the run, Taylor shouldn’t want for touches. Although he will have to compete with Mack to be the lead back, if he can post a few 100+ yard games early on and break some big runs (and tackles), Taylor could easily put up 1500 yards on the ground alone.
1. Joe Burrow (QB, Bengals)
Fresh off what may be the greatest college season by a QB ever, Burrow went first overall in the Draft and has a ready made narrative. While his situation in Cincinnati is hopeful, it arguably is not as complete of an Offense as what Tagovailoa has, or what a few RBs are entering.
While the Bengals’ RBs seem well-suited to function as receivers, combining for over 500 of the team’s 4000 receiving yards in 2019, almost all other positions have questions around them. Multiple spots on the OL are unstable, possibly leaving Burrow vulnerable to the speed of NFL pass rushers, and there isn’t a clear-cut starting TE.
The WRs look fine on paper, but outside of Tyler Boyd, Burrow is throwing to an ageing A.J. Green, who didn’t play in 2019, a fellow rookie in Tee Higgins, and third year Auden Tate, who was the team’s second best receiver last year with 575 yards and one TD. On top of that, Burrow was surrounded by plenty of NFL-calibre talent at LSU, and he now has to develop chemistry with a new crop of receivers.
Yet if Burrow can overcome all this and prove he is more than just a product of a system or reliant on those around him, he will be almost impossible to unseat as OROY. For this reason, as having a good chance at the best season, not the best chance at a good season, Burrow takes top spot.